NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California — It was the picture-perfect precision during descent, the way that each milestone was reached and passed so seamlessly, the speed with which the 9-month voyage raced to its Martian destination, the apparent ease of it all — it seemed almost surreal, otherwordly.
How could something so complex as the hair-raising landing of Curiosity in a three-mile deep Martian crater be done with such utter aplomb?
The answer shouted loud and clear at the Jet Propulsion Lab in the hours after landing was that a team of hundreds of engineers and thousands of other workers had spent five, six, seven years perfecting the rover and its landing. Scores of those jubilant men and women whooped and hugged and cried, and knew they were part of something very special. And something uniquely American.
It may have sounded a bit jingoist around JPL at times, but the truth is that only the United States has had the knowledge and moxie to successfully land a vehicle on Mars. We have now done it seven times, and no other nation has really come particularly close. And with the touchdown of the one-ton and highly sophisticated Curiosity, the U.S. has reached a whole new level of expertise.
Breaking Orbit guest blogger Marc Kaufman is a journalist with The Washington Post and author of National Geographic’s e-book “Mars Landing 2012: Inside NASA’s Curiosity Mission.” He is also the author of “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth,” published by Simon & Schuster.
Given that reality, there was actually little crowing about the achievement — more amazement, joy and relief. You could see it in the tears of Adam Steltzner, the rock star lead of the landing team. You could see it in the bursting emotion as scores of hardcore engineers streamed into an after-landing press conference and whooped and hollered and high-fived with all the leaders of the mission. And you could hear it in the frequent nods to German and French and Russian and Canadian and Spanish partners who helped design and make quite a few of the science instruments.
We know what it’s like after an athlete breaks a record or performs a perfect routine or runs onto the field after the team wins the big match. The same for when an astronaut steps onto the moon and millions on Earth rejoice.
But the transported joy of a vast team of engineers and scientists is just not something we’re that familiar with, though goodness knows they not infrequently earn it. In Times Square, crowds watching the landing coverage chanted “Science, science, science,” and “NASA, NASA, NASA.” When have you ever heard that before?
The Curiosity team nailed it big time; an achievement for the ages. There’s still a lot that can go right or go wrong as the rover begins its exploration of Mars — and its travels and investigations have difficulty factors not much different than the landing.
But nothing can take away from the sheer thrill of the rover’s seemingly perfect landing. Or from the little known men and women who poured their lives into making it happen.
More from National Geographic:
Explore an interactive time line of Mars exploration in National Geographic magazine.
Get the basics on the Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover.